A childhood spent by the ocean, and a love for cuisine, has culminated in one very special Cornish restaurant.
Words by Rebecca Hawkey
The fishing village of Looe is overflowing with the sights and sounds of a true Cornwall. Fishing boats start their engines ready to explore the ocean before the sun has shown her face, with the help of local seagulls to announce the dawn of a new day. With the friendly chatter amongst neighbours filling the cobblestone streets, the aroma of freshly baked bread drifts past and fills the air. Having been lucky enough to grow up in Cornwall myself, I know these sights, sounds and smells all too well and the same goes for local Looe lad, Ben Palmer.
Ben spent his childhood exploring this quaint little village, full of hard-working men and women, and he learnt early on what it meant to live off the land, respecting what mother nature had to offer. His Dad, being a sporting man, often served game for supper, accompanied by his Grandad’s fresh, homegrown vegetables from the garden out back. Thanks to such inspirations, Ben’s natural affinity for cooking was evident from a young age, and his ability to combine simple, local ingredients into a dish so full of flavour has served him well. As Ben says: “You can’t grow up in Looe and not know how to barbeque a mackerel!” It should come as no surprise then, that Ben returned to Looe in 2018 to start his own restaurant, after a brief hiatus owning and running a successful restaurant in Devon.
Ben was approached by the Looe Harbour Commissioners, as they wanted to let him know about a project they were working on in the village. Their plan was to knock down and rebuild an old, disused sardine packing factory, with the hope of breathing new life into it. On the second floor of the building there would be space to open a restaurant, and they knew Ben was the man for the job. After packing up and moving back to his hometown, Ben wasted no time in kitting out this new space to create what The Sardine Factory is today – a bustling, relaxed space in which to enjoy some of the best seafood in Cornwall.
As Ben explains, they didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. The Sardine Factory didn’t need frills and fancy place settings to win the hearts and hunger of guests; his food did that for them. By taking freshly caught lobster, cooking it on the barbeque, and pairing it with a simple seasoned butter, customers can enjoy the highest quality seafood with the respect and care that it deserves, letting the flavours do the talking. Ben approaches the entire menu in this way, with an air of aloofness that creates a calm, casual atmosphere for co-workers and customers alike. Since day one, The Sardine Factory has masterfully created dishes that are almost nostalgic, familiar and yet wholly original, all at the same time. Diners can enjoy favourites like The Sardine Factory smoked haddock scotch egg, or the Cornish crab linguine, from a whole new perspective.
As the seasons change, so too does their menu, working with mother nature rather than against her to bring new dishes with new ingredients to guests all year round. Ben and his team work closely with local fish suppliers, chatting daily about their most recent catch, and how they can incorporate that into their menu on the very same day – a remarkable connection between produce, supplier and buyer that is almost unheard of nowadays. Thanks to such processes, Ben and his team are granted an element of creativity and ingenuity when bringing dishes together, with their principal goal being pleasure. For everyone at The Sardine Factory, they believe that a meal should be a pleasurable experience from start to finish, one that brings joy and delight, not just from the food but from the environment too. Whether you are looking for fresh local oysters and lobster, or fish tacos and grilled sardines, there really is something for everyone to revel in at The Sardine Factory, its inclusivity being of great importance to Ben.
The vibe here is one of family, of friends gathering to share a meal, of locals and visitors coming together to break bread and enjoy the somewhat simple act of sharing food. Ben and the team work hard to remove the barrier between high-end dining and casual cuisine, for they believe in amalgamating the two. Here you can create your own fine-dining experience, ordering some of the best lobster in the world for a special occasion, or you can rock up in flip-flops from a day on the beach and order fish and chips. The food is consistently spectacular, the atmosphere warm and welcoming, so you are free to create whatever experience you wish.
Ben’s work and love of cuisine has taken him all over the country, trying and testing food in some fine establishments, but it’s the ingredients that spark his interest. More often than not, he will notice that Cornish produce is on the menu, usually fish that has been landed in Looe of all places. Ben is proud that high-end chefs are choosing catches from the local boats in Looe, and he knows it says a lot about what Cornwall has to offer.
Since its conception, and in the five years since, Ben has pushed the limits of what a local restaurant should be, evolving and adapting to changes in circumstance – the pandemic being one, and his marriage and the birth of his three children being another. Through hard work and a solid team, The Sardine Factory received a Michelin Bib Gourmand in 2019, recognition for all they have done so far, which was undoubtedly an emotional moment for Ben. His dream of doing what he loves, in the place he grew up in, surrounded by friends and family new and old must be a daily ‘pinch-me’ moment. For some, now would be a time to sit back on their laurels and enjoy the ride, but Ben continues to push the envelope, with even more exciting plans in the pipeline, ones that he is keeping close to his chest for now.
Living in Cornwall it’s hard not to have a deep admiration for what surrounds us, as we go from curious children who are fascinated by rock pools and woodland creatures, to adults who seek solace in her rugged coastlands and wild moors. Ben explains it best, for he says that when the sun is shining, you could be almost anywhere in the world, until you realise you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. The Sardine Factory is seemingly born from the history books, like it has been here all along. Providing refuge and refreshment for weary travellers and intrepid adventurers, dishing up some of the best food Cornwall has to offer. I for one am excited to see what more she could possibly deliver on the next changing of the tide.